It’s a world like Harry Potter’s for tween-age girls. Author Paula Berinstein has found the formula, which may be obvious to parents and teachers – but in young readers these stories will bring only delight. In Amanda Lester and the Pink Sugar Conspiracy, the tween protagonist is from a special lineage with exceptional talents, but she doesn’t wish it so. (I remember asking my mother why she hadn’t named me Bill or Bob, like the other boys.)
The bright, reclusive child needs and craves escape. To adults, withdrawal from the everyday world might seem to be going in the wrong direction. But the lessons learned are to be mined within, not outside, the person. At some point in our development, we need to find self-confidence, capability, and – most important of all – curiosity.
As she gets caught up in the story, the young reader won’t necessarily recognize the elements of her own world that Berinstein has transformed into the rich details of a magical, fictional realm.
Amanda Lester has a family heritage that brings special privilege. She is a descendant of Sherlock Holmes’ colleague Inspector Lestrade. Although Amanda repudiates any responsibility this status might imply, the reader knows the heroine is fated to follow a time-honored path. Amanda can’t avoid who she is. Sooner or later, she will be compelled to take action in her world, to be an agent of change.
Amanda is sent away to an academy – the Legatum Continuatum. It’s a secret English school for the descendants of famous detectives. She doesn’t particularly like the place – the coursework it’s far too easy for her. Even its name hints that history will be forced upon her, that her destiny is to carry important work forward.
The Legatum is based on an arcane body of knowledge. Headmaster Thrillkill’s expertise is locked-room mysteries. Professor Seashell Feeney studies criminals and their methods, and Professor Samuel Snool knows weapons. Professor Winifred Also teaches the history of detective work, and Amanda can’t help but like her.
From all this privileged information, the students are expected to develop extraordinary skill sets. Young readers might not equate their own challenges understanding math to the deductive processes of what the cops call “wet work.” Amanda thinks it’s a literally bloody bore, but she soaks it up in spite of herself.
There’s a villain with longstanding grudge. As Harry had his Voldemort, so Amanda has her modern-day Moriarty. The Pink Sugar Conspiracy is the first book in a series, and its plot centers on Blixus Moriarty’s scheme to corner the world’s sugar market, which holds potential for making horrific weaponry. Much more than Amanda herself, Moriarty appreciates and fears the worthy opponent that this girl will become.
Amanda has multitalented cohorts. She is the leader of a playground posse. There’s Ivy Halpin, who is blind, and the sultry Amphora Kapoor. Simon Binkle is resourceful but withdrawn, and Editta Sweetgum gets lost in details. And, as in real life, there are inevitable bullies. David Wiffle and Gordon Bramble are out to make Amanda and her friends miserable at every turn. Also on the scene is a burgeoning romantic relationship for Amanda in the leading-man-to-be Nick Muffet. (He’s not to be trusted.)
All of these elements are brought to boil in a reluctant mission for Amanda and her friends – involving rebellion, ingenious collaboration, application of secret knowledge, and a quest for identity.
Following on The Pink Sugar Conspiracy, the three other books in the series are: Amanda Lester and the Orange Crystal Crisis, Amanda Lester and the Purple Rainbow Puzzle, and Amanda Lester and the Blue Peacocks’ Secret. Forthcoming is Red Spider Rumpus.
With the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling created an absorbing, immersive, alternative world in which young-adult readers could get lost. Paula Berinstein’s new Amanda Lester series aims to do no less – to empower younger girls. As the author explains it, she’s inspired by:
… the Sherlock Holmes stories, Nancy Drew, and Trixie Belden. I’ll tell you why. I love to figure things out, and I must have started doing that because I read mysteries. Or maybe I was born that way, I don’t know. But I think mysteries have taught me how to approach life, to question and reason.
Is it possible to discover maturity through escape and self-absorption? I’d say yes – there’s no better way. And it’s enormous fun.
Photos: Courtesy Paula Berinstein, The Writing Show. Graphics by Anna Mogileva.